When my son started outdoor preschool this fall, I was very curious to see how it would turn out. Would he resist going and sitting out in the rain? Would he become a snail aficionado or lose interest in reading and writing completely?
Well, it’s been six weeks, and I’m happy to say that I think I made the right choice for my child. It’s going great. Outdoor preschool is becoming something of a trend in Seattle and elsewhere, in no small part to the start-up Tiny Trees, which opened six schools this year and is planning several more to be opened in July or September 2017.
Scroll down to see how you can win a ticket to the Tiny Trees luncheon and 2017 Sneak Peek, or keep reading to find out more about why parents like me are sending their kids outdoors.
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Nature Therapy for a Healthy Childhood
When my son was an infant, I read a book called Last Child in the Woods. The author Richard Louv describes how children in past eras explored the woods or other outdoor spaces behind their homes. They experimented with carpentry skills, got lots of exercise and observed the natural world.
Movement, sensory inputs, and other mechanisms we do not yet fully understand, protected them from depression, anxiety, and Attention-Deficit Disorder. Spending restorative time alone or with groups of peers without adult supervision, they practiced managing risks and solving problems.
This made lots of sense to me. I find it very restorative and relaxing to be surrounded by nature, too. One of the most reassuring thoughts I know is “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I know, it sounds a bit morbid. But the thought that we are just beings made of dirt, destined to return to the dirt, sure puts everyday pressures and stresses into perspective. I’m all for getting away from all the beeping, buzzing distractions!
Unfortunately, even finding wilderness — never mind getting to it and finding the time to stay — can be a real challenge. Nature Deficit Disorder is so real and so hard to avoid, that books such as 15 Minutes Outside have sprung up to instruct parents in how to work a little more outdoor time into their days.
The Outdoor Preschool Solution
Fortunately, kids can get many of the benefits of unsupervised outdoor play from a forest kindergarten or outdoor preschool. This film from Denmark shows a style of school that is super laid-back and gives kids wide berth.
So far Tiny Trees seems to have less in common with that style than it does with typical American preschool programs. I’m thinking of circle time, finger painting, and building with blocks. But there’s nothing wrong with those activities. The amazing teachers at Tiny Trees even figured out how to include cooking over a camp stove into the curriculum. First my guy said they made applesauce, then it was “apples with flour,” so I’m not quite sure what they made. But apparently it was a yummy, warm snack!
What’s It Like?
We hustle to get up in the morning and over to the park by 8:30. While some parks are on public transit lines, our outdoor classroom is unfortunately quite far from the nearest bus stop, even if I could get across town in a timely fashion by bus.
So we have organized a carpool. We drive into the forest, seeing the streets change from typical car-centric development to a land owned by trees, their leaf litter everywhere. The air smells damp but fresh, and when we get out of the car to walk to the classroom, the ground is springy or wet under our feet.
By the time I pick him up at 12:30, the day still ahead of us, my little guy has had a strong dose of “forest bathing” or shinrin-yoku, what some in Japan believe is a foundation for health and wellness. He’s had a short hike or “excursion” in the woods, lots of gross motor and sensory experiences with natural materials. Balancing on logs with friends, he learns social skills not in a noisy, possibly stinky classroom, but in the open air, where there is room to move but also reason to crowd in closely around a banana slug or other creature of interest.
Gratitude and Mindfulness
My kid is a creature of comfort, but “peer influence” is strong with this one.
We live in a place where it can and often is rainy every day for a month or more. Whenever I’ve tried to take him outside for any length of time in the rain, it has seemed like unnecessary torture. But hey, if all the kids are doing it, he will do it too. He’ll put on the full rain suit and trudge down muddy paths or explore puddles.
One day when it rained for the full four hours of school, the teachers didn’t even put out any playthings. They just took them on a long hike.
In the pictures, everyone looks a bit miserable, but I swear my guy came home in the best mood ever! Without pain, there is no pleasure, right? Dry clothes and a blanket in our boring old living room is the best thing in the world when you’ve just been hiking for hours in the rain. I appreciate the gratitude and mindfulness that these experiences cultivate in my child.
Re-Think Green is proud to be sponsoring a table at this year’s luncheon fundraiser for Tiny Trees in Seattle. Share this article and comment below for your chance to win a ticket for a fabulous lunch and lots of green networking on Friday, Nov. 18th! I’ll pick a winner on Nov. 11th. The fab teachers from each outdoor preschool classroom will be providing free child care for ages 2-10 inside the Museum of Flight — so fun!